Modular Embedded System Design Today and Tomorrow
Author: Henri Parmentier
A traditional single board computer (SBC) is a complete computer – including a microprocessor unit (MPU), memory, input/output (I/O), and other features required of a functional computer – all realized on a single printed circuit board (PCB). Traditional SBCs also include standard connectors that allow input/output peripherals to be connected directly to the board.
The concept of “future-proofing” an electronic system includes designing the product in such a way as to accommodate the increased computational requirements of evolving and new applications. Unfortunately, the fact that they combine processing functions with other elements means that traditional SBCs can be the limiting factor with regard to future-proofing the systems in which they reside.
One solution for equipment manufacturers who want to “ride the wave” of an increasingly competitive marketplace is to adopt a strategy based on the use of Computer-on-Modules (COMs).
Like an SBC, a COM is a complete embedded computer system implemented on a relatively small PCB. Such a COM is centered around a processor (possibly containing multiple cores), memory, input/output (I/O) controllers, and any other features required to implement a fully functional computer.
Unlike a traditional SBC, however, a COM lacks the standard connectors that would allow input/output peripherals to be connected directly to the board. Instead, the COM is plugged into a carrier board (or “baseboard”), which contains any additional components and subsystems. This allows the COM to focus on providing the core compute capabilities, while the carrier boards provide the “secret sauce” that allows system designers to differentiate their products from competitor offerings.
Using an existing off-the-shelf COM allows system architects to satisfy a wide range of product requirements in a way that reduces development time, effort, and resources, speeds time-to-market, and minimizes risk. Furthermore, using COMs based on industry-standard interface specifications help future-proof the systems in which they reside because it’s possible to replace an existing COM with a higher-performance unit without changing the rest of the system; also, it’s possible to source COMs from multiple vendors as required.
SMARCs: The State-of-the-Art in COMs
The COM concept – having a COM board providing the core compute capabilities residing on a carrier board carrying additional functionality and the design’s “secret sauce” – is of interest in its own right, even if designers are using proprietary (possibly in-house designed) COMs. However, using industry-standard COM offerings allows designers to take full advantage of the benefits offered by a COM-based approach.
There are a number of industry standards for COMs, each addressing different application areas. One of the most popular standards is SMARC (Smart Mobility ARChitecture), whose specification is published by the Standardization Group for Embedded Technologies e.V. (SGET). SMARC COM modules are specifically designed for the development of extremely compact, low-power systems based on ARM and x86 SoCs.
Front (top) and back (bottom) views of a previous generation SMARC module based on the NXP iMX8MThe ability to replace one SMARC COM with another while keeping the same carrier board — allows scalability, fast time-to-market, and upgradability while maintaining low costs, low power, and small physical size. Furthermore, using industry standard SMARC COMs enables second-source options that are simply not available when using proprietary designs.
The SGET membership includes many of the world’s leading creators of products for embedded computing, test and measurement, and automation applications. In addition to being a key SGET member, ADLINK is one of the driving forces behind the SMARC specification and offers a wide variety of state-of-the-art SMARC COM modules.
To be continued…Part 2 coming soon!